The saddest place on Earth is surely a Western Union office

A Western Union money transfer office in Singapore.

I am behind on stories. I have a few laying in drafts, notepads and sitting in my mind. Hell, I still haven’t written the story of how I got from Hanoi to Saigon on a motorbike. But the simpler stories are easier to tell.

I’m in Kuala Lumpur. Chinatown. I’m literally living in Petaling Street right among the street markets, but I’m a bit in the shit. I have no money. I had a banking error that was NOT in my favour and I lost all my money… turning up in KL with only a small amount of foreign cash, I went to a money changer. I had a wad of 100,000 dong notes, but it turns out the Vietnamese dong is worth bugger all in Malaysia and I got the worst exchange rate imaginable, leaving me horribly disappointed at getting only a hundred or something ringgits or something absurd like that for it.

I do have a 500,000 dong note. But even though it might be worth at least 68 ringgits at their absurd exchange rate, just owning a 500,000 VND note when you don’t live in Vietnam is pretty special. I wasn’t changing it. It went into my foreign money pouch. But what came out was two 1000 yen notes. I had three, from when I met Baba and his friends, the Japanese guys that didn’t have a dong between them (that’s NOT an Asian penis size joke.. I mean they hadn’t changed any currency) and I gladly bought their drinks and paid for their night club entry in exchange for some Japanese Yen. I parted with two of those notes. The exchange rate was much better. While only around $10 notes, I got at least about 33 ringgits per note, which was really good compared to how well my VND exchanged.

After getting into KLCC via bus for 7 ringgits, I had to pay 25 ringgits to get to my hotel. Actually not even the street, because it’s a no-vehicle street mall, and I had to carry about 40kg of numerous bags to my hotel after not sleeping at all the previous night, drinking until my flight left.

I went to the nearby food court. I knw that beer is REALLY expensive in KL, but food is REALLY cheap. I got a plate of Thai style lemon and sesame chicken and rice. 7 ringgits. Excellent. There’s even one stall that has a Chinese style setup where you just pile up a plate, for only 5 ringgits. That’s not even $2 AUD. Bargain. The woman offered me imported beers but I bought the one I knew was cheapest … a Skol. She came back with it and it was 17 fucking ringgits. I nearly died. I counted my cash and I was down to, I think 65 ringgits after I paid her… in a foreign country with $20 to your name. Not a good situation.

I had money organised from some work.. I had two contracts coming up for which I could ask for deposits, but the clients were busy and uncontactable and I was just sitting in there in KL looking at all my camera lenses thinking “How many ringgits would that 50mm prime get me ?” I ended up spending my last 50 ringgits on a SIM card but I was unable to call either of my clients that wanted work. I was truly up shit creek without a paddle. Noone was contactable. I did the unthinkable and I rang home. I talked for a long time about family problems and custody issues over my daughter but eventually my Dad asked if I needed help and I said yes and asked for a hundred dollars.

You might think pawn shops are sad places, but I can tell you, they have NOTHING on Western Union offices. There’s a fairly large one open 7 days at the mall at the end of Petaling Street, and it was jam packed with people sending and receiving cash all over the world.

I didn’t talk to many people, but I observed. The girl in front of me, whose nationality I couldn’t quite pinpoint was unceremoniously told that the pin number she had given on her application was incorrect and she could not have any money.

She nodded and stepped out of line and looked through a cute little notebook, plain blue on the outside, but with a faint watermark of some cute yellow teddy bear pattern on the inner pages. She seemed no more than about 20-24. She sat down and compared the number in her little notebook with the one on the form over and over.

She picked up a small Nokia from her pocket and dialled a number. Obviously family. As she did so, I glanced over her shoulder at her form. She listed her permanent address as Malaysia, but her origin of birth as Myanmar. I leaned further to see that she was expecting precisely 300 ringgits, less than $100 AUD, which told me that her family was poor… hardly a big surprise considering she was from Myanmar. Suddenly while talking on the phone she was cut off. She shook the phone in anger and stared it and then just started crying.

She stood up and wiped away her tears and barged to the front of the line and said “My phone. No credit. I cannot get the PIN number. You have phone ?” the Western Union woman shook her head and said “Sorry, no phone here”. She stood out of line and I could just about see her mind reeling.

The girl was literally in my situation not long ago… not even enough credit to call for help. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and leaned over to her and held it out on the dial screen and asked “You need a phone ?”

She just turned and looked at me, holding back tears and said “But I need ring Myanmar”. I nodded and said “I know. It’s ok. Enough credit”. She took the phone and sat down and rang someone I think had to be her father, but obviously she was speaking Burmese to him, which is a language I have only ever heard spoken once before. She wrote something down in her notebook and handed the phone back to me and said “Thank you. I had the number wrong. Thank you so much. It is ok now”.

I let her back in line in front of me, and the officious bitch, errr, I mean Western Union woman gave the girl her cash and she quickly put it in her pocket and nodded silently to me and ran out of the office quickly in black leather shoes with long grey socks without another word. I wondered who she was. I wondered why she was working in Malaysia when her family was in Myanmar. I wondered a lot of things. But it was my turn in line next, and I dutifully handed over my passport and answered a string of questions before being handed 312 ringgits… the Western Union equivalent of 122 AUD including fees.

I left, hoping I never had to step foot in that filthy, unfriendly place again, and wondering about the Burmese girl who had no money and was so far from home.

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